Magic Johnson

One of Basketball's All-Time Best Players

Magic Johnson and his wife Cookie
Earvin 'Magic' Johnson with wife, Cookie, at the 'Selma' and The Legends Who Paved the Way Gala. (December 6, 2014). (Photo by Araya Diaz/WireImage)

Who Is Magic Johnson?

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is best known for being one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time, but he is also a successful businessman, HIV/AIDS spokesperson, and philanthropist. In his spectacular 13-season career with the NBA's LA Lakers, Magic Johnson assisted the team in winning five championships and was chosen the MVP three times. Johnson was also instrumental as a member of the 1992 Olympic "Dream Team," winning America the gold medal in basketball.

Unfortunately, Magic Johnson's glowing career was tragically shortened when he was diagnosed in 1991 with HIV, the disease that causes AIDS. Since then, Johnson has used his celebrity status to promote HIV/AIDS education and prevention worldwide.

Birthdate:  August 14, 1959 -- Present

Also Known As:  Junior, June Bug, Magic

The Childhood of Magic Johnson

Earvin Johnson Jr. was born on August 14, 1959 in Lansing, Michigan -- the fourth of Earvin Sr. and Christine Johnson's seven children. (Earvin's father also had three children from a previous marriage.)

Earvin Sr. worked hard to provide for his large family. He maintained a full-time job as an assemblyman at General Motors by day and part-time jobs at night cleaning greasy garage floors, trash-hauling, and cleaning the offices of a couple of well-to-do African-American businessmen.

Earvin Jr. fantasized about being a pro basketball player foremost, but also a rich businessman.

He often accompanied his father on jobs and sometimes sat behind the executives' desks, pretending he owned the entire building. These men had respect, beautiful homes, and expensive cars – and Earvin Jr. wanted that someday.

Everybody performed chores around the house and was expected to make their own spending money.

So ten-year-old Earvin Jr. started his own lawncare business. His mother was a school custodian, and from his parents Earvin learned the value of hard work.

On Sunday afternoons, the basketball-loving family parked in front of the TV to watch 7’ 1” Wilt Chamberlain, Earvin Sr.'s favorite player. Celtics legend Bill Russell was Earvin Jr's. Never in his wildest imagination did Earvin Jr. think he would one day play side-by-side with the great ones.

Stick With It!

As a small child, Earvin was short and chubby -- earning him the nickname "June Bug." His dream of playing pro basketball seemed far-fetched, but his parents encouraged him to stick with it. At eight, Earvin began shooting hoops with his one-year-older brother Larry who was taller.

But Earvin was faster because he dribbled everywhere. He dribbled to Dwight Rich Junior High and back, balancing books on his head. Earvin even took his basketball to bed. Pretty soon, he had learned to make shots using either hand. Also, Earvin started growing and by eighth grade he stood 6' 4" tall.

Earvin's height got everyone's attention, but so did his skills on court. Seeing potential greatness in his namesake, Earvin Sr. began schooling him on the intricacies of basketball.

He laid out individual strategies of basketball greats. Earvin Sr. taught Junior that he must be good at everything: dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding, and defense.

Earvin's high scoring enabled his Dwight Rich team to win two Lansing championships. Now he was ready to move on to nearby Sexton High, famous for its championship team.

"A Big Black Dot"

However, because of school integration, a miserable Earvin was bused across town to mainly white Everett High, rather than Sexton. Everett's Vikings was the antithesis of what Sexton was to basketball. Integration was an unpopular concept, and African-American students that were bused to Everett -- including Earvin's brother Larry -- had rocks thrown at them the prior year. 

The unease continued when Earvin tried out for the worst basketball team in Michigan.

Although he made the all-white team, it was obvious they didn't want a black player. His teammates refused to pass him the ball, and when Earvin grabbed the ball, the players became angry.

Coach George Fox had observed the truly skilled player on his team and utilized Earvin as a point guard, which helped the young player involve his teammates on the action. If they missed a shot, Earvin rebounded to make the basket. Now everyone felt a part of the team.

Learning Valuable Lessons

The team's performance vastly improved, thanks to Earvin, and he was finally accepted. Other African-American boys with talent joined the team, but prejudice persisted. Three black girls tried out to be cheerleaders but were denied, even though they were glaringly better than members of the all-white group.

Protesting the injustice, now-popular Earvin got other black teammates to boycott practice. The result was African-American girls could join the cheerleading squad for the first time in Everett's history.

On the court, Earvin was famous for his moves. Off court, he was known for his gregarious nature. The attention heaped upon one so young made Earvin swell-headed. He started clowning around during practice, missed drills, and disregarded Coach Fox's criticism of his behavior.

Earvin quickly shaped up, however, when the coach threatened to keep him from starting the next game. He said team success depended upon each player's discipline and dedication to the inglorious task of making every practice and drill. Earvin's teammates and coach later observed that Earvin Jr. began to practice harder than he played.

Becoming Magic

Fifteen-year-old Earvin was nearly 6' 9", but moved with a finesse that awed basketball fans, scouts, and sportswriters alike. Fred Stabley Jr., Lansing Journal's sportswriter, labeled Earvin's amazing game style “magic” when he racked 36 points, made 18 rebounds, and 16 assists during a game in December 1974. That night, Earvin became "Magic" Johnson.

Everyone was mesmerized by the big kid's skill and enthusiasm for the sport.

During his junior year, sportswriters ranked Magic one of the top-five high-school basketball players in the nation. He was dubbed by United Press International as Michigan's Prep Player of the Year.

Magic began considering what college he would attend. Scholarship offers came from major institutions all over the country, but Earvin Sr. was pushing his son to play for Michigan's Spartans. Magic had followed the Spartans from childhood and loved the winning team.

Magic Johnson at Michigan State

The famous 18-year-old's reputation preceded him at Michigan State. Since the Spartans hadn't played well the prior season, the hopes of an entire city fell on Magic.

His first game was against Central Michigan. Magic had fallen ill the day before and was very groggy on game day because he hadn't slept. Family and friends were cheering for him -- but Magic couldn't find his mojo. The Spartans won, no thanks to Magic.

The embarrassed player discovered there was a big difference between high school and college basketball. Spartan coach Jud Heathcoate was no-nonsense and accepted no excuses. He advised Magic that his famous high-jumps and faked shots wouldn't work at college-level. He called it showboating.

Although a good coach, Heathcoate was explosive and yelled constantly at his players. Magic respected him, but at times the coach angered him. Ultimately, both he and coach wanted only to win.

Thanks to Magic's improved performance, the Spartans won the Big Ten Conference for the first time in 19 years. Magic's impressive 17-points-per-game average, assists, and rebounds garnered praise even from Coach Heathcote.

Putting the Pros on Hold

Magic's performance garnered offers from several pro-basketball teams. One team offered $250,000 for a six-year contract, which was a lot of money for Magic Johnson’s struggling family. But Magic's parents wanted him to remain in college for the 1978-1979 season.

Unfortunately, the Spartans didn't play well at the start of the season, losing four out of six games. Heathcoate shifted Magic to forward, allowing more under-the-hoop shots. The switch-up worked and the Spartans started winning.

Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird

By end-of-season, the team was on track to go for the NCAA title. Michigan State beat Pennsylvania, and Indiana State routed DePaul to win the playoffs. In 1979, the most famous matchup ever in basketball took place when Magic Johnson went head-to-head with Larry Bird of Indiana State at University of Utah for the championship. It proved to be the most-watched game in college basketball's history.

College senior Bird's and sophomore Magic's on-court talents were comparable, and the battle for the NCAA title was expected to be a one-on-one competition. Heathcoate, however, had his mind set on taking Bird out early -- rendering Indiana State ineffective.

Heathcoate pushed defense, and it worked -- tying Bird in knots. He couldn't pass or shoot. Meanwhile, Magic was scoring but had gotten fouled out. However, the Spartans controlled the ball and won the game 75 to 64.

Michigan State became the new NCAA champions, with Magic scoring 24 points to Bird's 19. The two rivals bested each other for many years -- eventually becoming best friends.

Love at Michigan State

Magic Johnson was especially popular with female students at Michigan State. But none held a candle to fellow-freshman Earleatha "Cookie" Kelly, whom Magic met at a disco in 1977. Cookie knew that Magic was a big celebrity, but seemed unimpressed -- and Magic liked that. He asked for Cookie's phone number and a long romance ensued.

The couple's relationship soon turned stormy because Magic dated other women. This prompted arguments and sometimes breakups. During one hiatus, 21-year-old Magic rekindled a relationship with ex-girlfriend Melissa Mitchell, resulting in a pregnancy.

At first, Magic met his fathering responsibility of son Andre by keeping in contact with Melissa and sending money. When Andre was big enough, he lived with his father during summers. Magic was determined to be as involved in his son's life as his father was in his.

The Lakers

Larry Bird was named College Player of the Year, although Magic Johnson had played better. Disappointed, Magic and his family decided it was time to go professional. Nineteen-year-old Magic was first pick in the draft by the LA Lakers in June 1979, with a four-year contract at $500,000 a year.

In his first pro game, Magic made several rookie mistakes. Taken out by the coach after 17 minutes, Magic came back to score 26 points by the end of the game.

In Magic's sixth game during the 1979-1980 NBA championship bid, the Lakers needed only to win this game. However, revered Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out due to a bad ankle sprain, which meant that Magic would be playing center. Magic, who hadn't played center since high school, felt huge pressure.

The Laker's start wasn't promising and the game was close. However, during the last five minutes, the Lakers played what was deemed the best all-around game in basketball's history and clinched the title with a score of 123 to 107. Magic alone scored a 42-point total and was named MVP.

During the third game of the second season, something snapped in Magic Johnson's left knee and he had to be carried off the court. Tests revealed a badly-torn cartilage. The injury kept Magic out for 45 consecutive games, during which Magic feared he'd never play basketball again.

Recovery involved physical rehab two times a day, six days a week. Retraining his body was a long, painful process. When Magic finally returned, it was without his usual resplendence and he was booed.

But in 1982, Magic got his groove back and the Lakers won the NBA title. Magic spent his entire 13-season pro career with the Lakers, winning championships in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988.

The Tragedy

No matter the number of breakups, Magic and Cookie always reunited. When 31-year-old Magic proposed in early 1991, 32-year-old Cookie accepted. The happy couple wed on September 14, 1991 and soon discovered they were expecting a child.

Magic was on top of the world by September's end in 1991. He was a newlywed, expectant father, and was starting his 13th season with the Lakers. Magic had also been appointed to the "Dream Team," a conglomeration of basketball elites, playing in Barcelona for the 1992 Summer Olympics. But tragedy soon struck.

As part of Magic Johnson's contract renegotiation with the Lakers for a $3 million paycheck, he was required to take a routine physical that included blood tests. The physical was a requirement for the Laker's new insurance policy taken out on him, but the policy was rejected by the insurance company for unspecified reasons.

When notified of the insurance rejection, Magic requested an explanation through the Laker's physician. On October 25, 1991, Magic was in a Utah hotel preparing for a Lakers exhibition game when he received a call from Dr. Michael Mellman, insisting that he return to LA immediately. Magic's test results were in.

Magic, usually healthy as a horse, hadn't felt well lately. Dizziness, fatigue, and coughing had plagued him for weeks. He thought it was hypertension or a virus. But nothing prepared Magic for the type of virus he had acquired.

Tests revealed Magic Johnson was infected with the deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the disease that causes AIDS. Upon hearing the news, Magic fell to the floor of the doctor's office, where he stayed for two hours, thinking about how he would tell two-month-pregnant Cookie, and the impact of the disease on her and their baby. Magic thought of famous people who had died of AIDS like Rock Hudson and Liberace. Many more would follow.

Cookie burst into tears when Magic broke the news, more concerned about him than herself. When Magic told Cookie that he understood if she wanted a divorce, she slapped him. Cookie suggested they pray together.

Giving Up Basketball

To this point, Magic Johnson thought like most others that HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. By 1991, more than 150,000 Americans had perished from HIV/AIDS. There were more than a million who were infected in America -- with 40,000 new infections each year, mainly among heterosexuals.

At 230 pounds, Magic looked completely healthy. Many didn't realize that one can't detect by appearances if a person had AIDS. The disease destroys from the inside out, attacking the immune system and can take years to manifest.

Magic got retested, but it only confirmed the original diagnosis. Thankfully, results came back negative for Cookie and their unborn child.

Magic started taking AZT, an effective first-generation HIV drug, but the medicine caused Magic to have severe headaches and nausea. He played for a period, but it became apparent that he'd have to give up his beloved basketball.

Telling the World

Magic Johnson missed the first three games of the 1991-1992 season; Laker management reported it was the flu. Rumors circulated that Magic had a serious heart ailment.

Magic first told the truth to close friends Larry Bird and Arsenio Hall, who both wept. Michael Jordan, when told, sat in stunned silence. Magic also had to call and tell his 10-year-old son Andre. Then Magic met with his Lakers teammates, many of whom cried along with him.

sense of responsibility led Magic Johnson to hold a press conference on November 7, 1991, to inform the world.

A purposeful Magic began by stating that he was retiring from the Lakers -- because he was infected with HIV. Magic stated that his wife and unborn child were not HIV-infected and for that, he was grateful. He vowed to learn everything he could about the disease and become a spokesman to educate young people. 

Magic thanked his fans, family, coaches, and teammates for standing with him at such a difficult time. He stated that without question his life would change in many ways, but he would live on, beat the disease, and have fun. Magic advocated safe sex and getting tested. Though he appeared almost light-hearted, his message was frighteningly clear -- anyone can get the disease.

The Aftermath

Magic Johnson’s mind-numbing disclosure sent fans reeling and was met with tears and disbelief. After Magic's announcement, he was deemed a hero for bravely sharing his diagnosis and was not dropped by a single sponsor. Analysts agreed that Magic's glowing image was spared irreparable damage by his forthrightness and revealing his diagnosis before mainstream media could.

Inevitably, there were rumors that Magic contracted HIV from being bisexual, homosexual, or an intravenous druggie. Some stated Magic was spotted in LA's gay bars. After appearing on Arsenio Hall's show and admitting to having unprotected sex with so many women that he didn't know who infected him, critics stated Magic was no hero.

Conservative politicians suggested Magic push abstinence, rather than safe sex. Although his announcement came with a mixed-bag of reactions, immediately thereafter the National AIDS hotline received more than 40,000 calls, when the average was 4,000 per day.

The AIDS Commission

Magic Johnson received a letter from President George Bush stating his respect and admiration, and inviting Magic to join his National Commission on AIDS. Magic replied that he'd be honored and attended the first meeting on January 14, 1992.

However, Magic was disappointed upon learning that Bush's administration held back necessary funding to combat the disease where it was most needed -- within the black community. Because of the lack of AIDS education and funding for resources, black women were HIV/AIDS infected ten times more than white women.

Magic wrote Bush, requesting a total of $2 billion for research and treatment over a three-year period. Bush wrote back thanking Magic, but no money came. The Commission accused Bush of ignoring the AIDS epidemic.

Magic resigned his post, but continued to fight AIDS through the Magic Johnson Foundation, which he established with personal funds in December 1991, and many other undertakings to educate, support research, and raise HIV/AIDS awareness.

The Comeback That Wasn't

Even though Magic was in retirement, he came back to play in the NBA All-Star Team in 1992. He scored 25 points with nine assists and five rebounds and was designated MVP of the game.

Magic had been chosen to play in the 1992 Summer Olympics on the "Dream Team" of America's best players. After winning the gold medal, upbeat Magic planned a comeback to basketball and made the announcement in late 1992.

Magic was not prepared, however, for players' reaction. Fearing that Magic would sweat or bleed, thereby causing AIDS-contagion, teams questioned having an HIV-infected individual on the court. Others questioned his health.

Magic played briefly in 1992, but the players' paranoia increased. No longer feeling comfortable on the court, Magic changed his mind.

By 1996, however, players were more educated about HIV/AIDS. So when Magic returned to the Lakers on January 30 to play against the Golden State Warriors, his teammates embraced him. Magic scored 19 points, and the Lakers won 128 to 118.

Whether from HIV/AIDS progression or the medications he was taking to fight it, Magic noticed he was physically weaker. After playing against Utah's Jazz, securing a 110-103 victory, Magic retired again at the season's end.

During his impressive 13-year career with the Lakers, Magic scored 17,707 points, made 6,559 rebounds, and 10,141 assists. After retirement, Magic became a commentator for Bulls-Lakers games on NBC.

For the 1993-1994 season, he filled in as Lakers coach and bought a stake in the team, which he later sold back. In 2002, Magic was admitted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. He ranks among the top-ten greatest basketball players of all time.

Still Magic, a Living Legend

Magic, a business powerhouse, runs the multi-billion-dollar Magic Johnson Enterprises with son Andre -- which includes a record company, movie studio, promotional company, several movie theaters, and a number of Starbucks franchises located in underserved black communities. In March 2012, Magic bought the Dodgers sports franchise for a record $2 billion.

Earvin III (often called or E.J.), Magic and Cookie's son, was born healthy after his father's HIV diagnosis. Magic is completely supportive of his gay son E.J. and hopes that E.J. can be a role model for other gay youth. In 1995, Magic and Cookie adopted a daughter, Elisa.

Over the years, many have speculated that Magic, who is still seemingly in good health, is rich enough to have access to specially-formulated medicines. However, Magic maintains that he has access to only the same 30-something drugs as everyone else with HIV. Magic claimed that he is in great shape -- not because he is cured of HIV/AIDS -- but credits his Christian faith, a three-pill drug cocktail, exercise, and watching his diet.

Magic has achieved much in the years since his diagnosis and retirement. Primarily, he will be remembered for doing more than anyone else in educating on HIV/AIDS in America.